The ambulance hurtled through traffic. Cars honked. Students ran across the intersection.
Subhash watched while in his office several stories above. In seconds, the streets became quiet again, as lecture halls filled up, and sirens faded.
Earlier that morning, he filed the complaint. Although the officer jotted notes and promised more patrols, Subhash couldn’t shake the feeling that Naima was right, that none of them truly cared about what was happening. He continued to gaze through his window.
Didn’t they deserve better? Hadn’t he followed the correct steps toward attaining respect? Professor at his alma mater. Responsible taxpayer. He and his wife were locals, living in the same suburban town they grew up in. Both attended Rutgers, found jobs, and bought a home after years of bargain bin shopping and scrounging for coupons. Yes, their house was one of the smallest in the area, but that shouldn’t matter. He earned it. The son of Bangladeshi immigrants, who too climbed into the light of the white-collar world. However, a sense of powerlessness crept into him, turning his feet and hands numb. Whispering that he’d been failing, as a husband, as a father, as a…
There was a knock on the door. It was Langston.
“Is this a bad time?” he asked.
Subhash invited him to take a seat, but Langston read the expression on Subhash’s face.
“What happened?” Langston said.
Subhash sighed. “Went to the station,” he answered.
Langston’s eyes widened. “Again?” he exclaimed.
“This is like the seventh time.”
“That’s what I told them.”
“Man, I’m sorry.”
Subhash shrugged. “Any good news? Did the union convene yet?”
Langston took in a deep breath, and didn’t immediately respond.
Subhash chuckled, and shook his head.
“A new contract won’t be easy,” Langston reminded. “But we can focus on getting them to hire more people of color since last I heard, there is some extra funding.”
“You do realize that since you’re here, they’re not going to hire another black faculty member.”
Langston grinned. “We can’t have everything, I guess. Listen, I actually didn’t come here to talk about all this happy stuff. Amiri bought a new grill and we want you guys to help us break it in this weekend.”
“That sounds perfect but we’re taking Tulsi to swimming and piano lessons. Will you be free for dinner though?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh. Are you available for another night?”
“Wait, you haven’t heard?”
“There’s been a series of stabbings” Langston said, “Especially around East Brunswick.”
“Last Friday, a couple was stabbed in the back while leaving a bar. Some asshole jumped out of his car and attacked them before fleeing the scene. And the victims were Muslim. Or looked to be, based on what I read online.”
“I thought this was happening in North Brunswick.”
“It was initially. But cops say this is either a copy cat or the same one that’s now expanding his territory.”
Langston paused, and apologized.
“I seriously just wanted to see if you were free this weekend,” he said. “That was the plan.”
Subhash told him it was no big deal.
“Besides,” Subhash added, “ignorance is never bliss.”
The rest of the day, Subhash did his best to keep his feet on the ground. He taught his favorite class, which was on Frantz Fanon. Ignoring the empty seats, Subhash found joy in seeing the faces of the students light up as he discussed Fanon’s theory of the colonized identity. During office hours, students who had once taken his course updated him on the progress they’d been making on getting a new race and ethnicity center on the main campus.
“We’ve been petitioning since 8 a.m.,” said Fatima, whose hijab and shirt were bright red like the school’s scarlet mascot.
Afeni, who was responsible for organizing the rallies, showed Subhash the flyers and posters they made.
“We need to convince the dean to meet us,” Fatima continued, her voice rising.
Subhash encouraged Afeni to write in the same way she did for the Black Student Union’s events, which was concise and factual. He also advised them to get signatures from faculty.
They thanked him and returned to the main campus, while Subhash stayed in his office. Surrounded by his books, he tried to continue writing a paper he was set to present at a conference. However, he heard sirens, and honking.
. . .
Naima stared at the glowing numbers. Once the elevator doors opened, she headed down the hallway, toward the wall with the words JERSEY TRIBUNE hammered into it. Immediately, her shoulders felt heavy. Her head was already throbbing. She grabbed the knob, and before pulling it open, exhaled, and as if wandering through a portal, wore a big smile, the widest one she could muster. The sound of phones echoed. Still, she waved at whomever she saw.
“Hey Becky! How was your weekend?” she’d say, inserting a different name at the beginning as often as she could, until reaching her cubicle where the answering machine was blinking red.
By lunch, she submitted two stories, and called up sources in the city government about a pipeline break. The other reporters were also eating at their desks, though sometimes, they’d go to the breakroom in pairs, muttering about deadlines or whatever else kept them bonded for that brief moment. Naima would remember to smile at whoever passed by, but knew it was best to not open her mouth. After her third cup of coffee, she drove to Jersey City, which was a few minutes away from their offices in Secaucus, and snapped pictures of the construction site set up at the intersection where the pipe was now exposed. She tweeted the pics, emailed them to her boss, posted an update on the website, and texted her sources for more info. Back at the office, she was editing the final story, when suddenly, a voice charged in.
“Fucking hilarious!” it boomed. Naima slowly lifted her head to see that it was Emiliano. He was snatching items off his desk, including paperclips, and tossing them into a cardboard box.
Their editor was trying to calm him down, as everyone on their floor gathered around them.
“Emil, it’s nothing personal.”
“Say my whole name for once in your life, you fat piece of shit.”
The room was quiet. While holding the box at his waist, Emiliano scanned the crowd and kept smirking, until he spotted Naima.
Naima didn’t move.
Finally, security escorted him away from view, and the phones started ringing again.
Naima tried to finish her article, as the other reporters, most of them women, formed circles at the end of each aisle. Sometimes, Naima would glance and guess what they were saying from their body movements. As the only black reporter, Naima usually relied on what she described to Subhash when they started dating, as her “Spidey sense.” Back then, it was cute, and even something to be proud of, an ability to be conscious of what was around her at almost all times, a skill perfect for her job. But after spending nearly seven years in the same newsroom, and trying her best to get to know everyone who’d come through, even the interns, she realized that her valued “Spidey sense” was tingling more and more often. Everyone was a possible enemy she concluded after a co-worker (who left to be an editor for The New York Times after only a year at the Tribune) complained about Naima’s “demeanor” to the others last summer, claiming that Naima was too “abrasive.” Naima learned her lesson to not let her guard down just yet. It was tiring of course. And on some mornings, she felt like staying in bed and closing her eyes, imagining she was someplace else, somewhere she could laugh as loud as she wanted, or even cry in public. At times like that, she’d tell herself that one day, it would all be worth it. One day, all this would be returned in full.
Maria, who worked in advertising, wandered over.
“I should’ve bet money on him doing something crazy like that,” she told Naima. “Always the drama queen.”
Naima asked what happened, and Maria explained that the paper terminated Emiliano’s contract and several others.
“The owner’s grandson has been taking over,” Maria said. “We had a meeting with him two weeks ago and all he could talk about was staying on a path to ‘self-sufficiency.’”
“Who will take over as copy editor then?”
“They’ll probably hire some part-timer, who’s semi-retired anyway, and just happy to be out of the house.”
Naima paused. And stared at her computer screen, at the sentences waiting for her to complete.
“I already started looking at other places,” Maria said, leaning against the cubicle wall, her hands in her pockets.
Naima didn’t know how to respond. Fortunately, her source called her back, and she grabbed the phone, pressing it to her ear, confirming that yes, the pipe was under repair.
. . .
After temple, Subhash’s extended family paid an impromptu visit. Uncle Sen, who was the house’s original owner, brought bags of fish from the Patel supermarkets in Edison. He and his sons, Kanu and Charu, covered the kitchen table in newspaper, and began to cut and fillet as if they were in the backroom of a restaurant.
“Even though the Gujus eat ghee all day, they always have some decent catfish,” Uncle Sen said, with his sleeves rolled up, and digging out the innards with his hands.
Naima had just taken a shower when she smelled the stench, and after heading downstairs, saw the aunties gossiping in the living room. She touched their feet and received their blessings, or that was what she assumed. Last time she’d been at a family gathering, she’d overheard them in Bengali, repeating the word “Kallu” over and over right before she’d enter any room. Naima used to not care what they thought about her, but after Tulsi was born, she paid extra attention to what they’d say around her daughter.
Tulsi was in the kitchen already, jumping up and down, asking if she too could cut the fish.
Uncle Sen laughed, and was about to hand her the knife when Naima grabbed Tulsi’s hand.
“Hello Uncle,” Naima exclaimed, and also greeted Kanu and Charu, who she knew while growing up. Kanu smiled from the across the table, while Charu kept his head low and grunted.
As Uncle Sen explained how eating fish helped create a healthy brain and that Tulsi needed all she could get, Naima glanced at Subhash, who was texting on his phone. She cleared her throat, and once he looked up, she furrowed her brow. He rolled his eyes, and took Tulsi by the hand, leading her away.
They took a walk around the block, just as the sun was setting and the air was crisp.
Tulsi skipped and talked about her day at school, about learning what mammals were.
At the end of the street, their neighbor, Harjeet, was tending his garden.
“Yo, what’s up?” Subhash quickly called over.
Tulsi asked if she could water the plants.
Harjeet handed her the tiniest water pot he had, which she carried with both hands and tipped over onto the soil.
“Me and Devika know the perfect place for Tulsi’s birthday,” Harjeet said. “I know it’s a while away but Devika said last year, you had trouble booking a place.”
“That was my fault. I got caught up in work…”
“How are things at the university? If you’re ever interested, we have openings,” Harjeet said.
“Aren’t you in engineering…?”
“We can always use someone at the front desk.”
The streets emptied. The lampposts flickered on.
Harjeet’s blue turban was illuminated.
He told Subhash it was nice catching up but he needed to finish up some work.
“Plus, that crazy lunatic is out there,” Harjeet added.
“Shit, you heard about that too?” Subhash replied.
“Dude, I told Devika she needed to stop working those late night hours. It’s not worth it.”
“What about Manmeet’s after school programs?”
“Same with him,” Harjeet said. “In the end, it’s up to us to protect what we have. The assholes expect us to walk around with our penises tucked between our legs.”
Subhash cleared his throat and nodded.
He and Tulsi went back home, just as dinner was served, and Naima was having a glass of red wine.
Subhash ate as much fish as he could. Enough to make him fall asleep.